Friday, 4 March 2011

Something important is wrong with Paradise Lost

I don't mean the usual grounds of criticism; and I'm not trying for a deliberately low-brow grunting objection to Milton's Latinisms, or anything like that. I mean something more specific; something at its theological core. It has to do with the poem's deepest relationship to newness. This to spin-on from what I say here: the point of Christianity, in a deep sense -- the main thing it adds to the body of human religious thinking -- is its apotheosis of the novum. God created the world many thousands (or as we would now say; billions) of years ago ... but he waited until 0BC/AD (or 5 BC; let's no splt hairs) to incarnate himself into that world. Of course this is a little problematic: if God created the world and the people in it, why did he wait so long to come into it himself? We might imagine him creating the cosmos as a home for himself, in which case He would be there from the beginning; or we might imagine him (as some early Christians did; and many sects of contemporary Millenarian Christians do too) waiting until very near the end of things to come on stage, as a sort of climactic act. But that's not what we see in Christianity: we see a God happy for the world to trundle along, unredeemed, for thousands -- or billions -- of years; and then, at an otherwise unremarkable period in history, to insert himself into creation. Islam doesn't have this problem, for all that its most revered prophet appears even later in the historical narrative. I say this despite the fact that Islam specifically considers its faith complete, universal and primordial (as Milton did Christianity). This is because, although Mohammed has, of course, a special place in the traditions of Muslim religious observance, Islam is actually perfectly hospitable to other, earlier prophets (including Abraham, Moses and Jesus) who have all over time played their part in the gradual perfection of the revelation of God's purpose to the world.

This, then, is one of Milton's problems. He regards his own Christian faith as complete, universal and primordial; but at the same time he sets out to write a poem set thousands (billions) of years before the key event of his own faith. It's all the prelude to a prelude. But Milton can't have that; so he decides to violate one of the things -- the structure of time -- that is at the delicate heart of the beautifully narrative and temporal revelations of the New Testament. In Paradise Lost everything, from the Creation to the Crucifiction, happens all at once. Characters spend a goodly portion of the poem either retrospecting or proleptically anticipating key events; and Jesus is there from the get-go, a character in the poem, debating with God the Father in Book 3. Consecutivity is dissolved away, or forced through a scrap-metal-yard's car-crusher.

What does this mean? Well it flirts with absurdity, in a bad way: not only the temporal paradox issue of how we can have free will in a universe in which everything is divinely ordained and has (as it were) already happened -- scholars have taken immense pains in debating that thorny notion, in the poem and in the broader theological sense. I have no wish to stick my own hand into that metaphorical Gom Jabbar. No, I mean the way in which Milton ends up staging a debate between a father who does not temporally precede his son; the way the whole perspective of the larger cosmic narrative is crushed and crowded into a ludicrously small space. The way Book 3 exhibits, in manifold ways, a contempt for the very idea of newness as such.

Milton entombs the newness of Christianity in a sepulchral oldness (a primordialness, an ancientness) that kills it. But for Milton death-in-life is not the nightmare figure it was for Coleridge. Death is the gate back to Eden; the mode by which salvation and redemption is effected. Christ at the beginning of Paradise Lost -- at the beginning of the world, the beginning of the human story -- is already dead:
I offer, on mee let thine anger fall;
Account mee Man; I for his sake will leave
Thy bosom, and this glorie next to thee
Freely put off, and for him lastly die
Well pleas'd, on me let Death wreck all his rage;
Under his gloomy power I shall not long
Lie vanquisht; thou hast givn me to possess
Life in my self for ever, by thee I live,
Though now to Death I yield, and am his due
All that of me can die, yet that debt paid,
Thou wilt not leave me in the loathsom grave
His prey, nor suffer my unspotted Soule
For ever with corruption there to dwell;
But I shall rise Victorious, and subdue
My Vanquisher, spoild of his vanted spoile;
Death his deaths wound shall then receive, & stoop
Inglorious, of his mortall sting disarm'd. [III:237-53]
Christ dies right here ('now to Death I yield'); but does so only so as to turn himself into a kind of metadeath, a death that preys on death. This is styled according to the larger 'resurrection' logic of Christian belief, of course; but its effect here is rather a claustrophobic reduplication of death. And what is that, except the crystallisation of a larger aesthetic and theological project to de-bone the temporal specificity of the Incarnation, and make it something always already accomplished and ended? If, in the Areopagitica Milton sees no contradiction in simultaneously hymning books as newly and vitally alive and as dead and embalmed ('a good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life') -- it is because his whole project wants to make no distinction, on a deep level, between being alive and being dead; or to put it more carefully, between being at the beginning of something and being at the end.

That's fair enough; but we can step outside Christian doctrinal squabbles far enough to say: it's not Christianity. If Christianity is a religion founded on the transcendental assertion 'everything is different now', then Paradise Lost is a text that sets itself at the opposite pole from that. It's a poem about the end of things, for all that it presents itself as set at the beginning. It is, indeed, a poem that rather splendidly fetishizes endings as such. The clue is in the title, I suppose.


springer said...

Perhaps I'm not reading you closely enough (I have a toddler tugging at my sleeve while I'm typing this), but God didn't wait until Jesus's birth to incarnate himself in his own creation, he was present at the beginning, walking in the garden with that golem and its rib.

Marly Youmans said...

Interesting, but I'm not so sure, then, what you do with a line like this, so friendly to "Paradise Lost"--"I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End..."

Adam Roberts said...

Springer: yes, God is 'there' of course, because God is everywhere. But God is not incarnated, not even when wandering around Eden. That might look like a quibble but I don't think it is.

Marly: fair point, though I'm tempted to reply that there's a necessary temporality in the very distinction between 'first and last'.

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